Stay on Target: Mind Wandering, Prospective Memory, & Responsibility

Project Awarded: $30,450

People lead busy lives, so they need to make plans about what they will do in the immediate and distant future. For example, someone might plan to buy scotch later for the party or pick up her child from daycare on the way home from work. Given that conscious awareness and working memory are limited resources, people cannot focus on carrying out these plans all the time. Instead, people rely on remembering to perform a future task given specific conditions. The representation of this task is stored as a prospective memory. Prospective memories are recalled when a specific cue is detected, which signals the need to activate the relevant features of the intended action. Failures to detect the cue can result in forgetting to complete the prospective task (prospective memory errors). The consequences of prospective memory errors range in severity. For instance, forgetting to buy scotch for a party may bear less severe consequences than forgetting to pick up your child from daycare. People tend to hold others responsible for these errors and the subsequent consequences (cf. Smith 2005; Sher 2009). This suggests that prospective memory errors can be culpable (see Clarke 2014 and Murray 2017 for arguments to this effect that do not rely exclusively on folk judgments of responsibility). Therefore, it is important to establish the conditions under which a prospective memory error is culpable.

One approach to establishing whether a prospective memory error is culpable is considering the circumstances under which the prospective memory error occurs and evaluating whether those circumstances provide a reasonable excuse for the consequences of the prospective memory error. Recent evidence suggests that mind wandering might be one such relevant condition. For instance, mind wandering is a perceptually decoupled state marked by an attentional shift from processing task-relevant stimuli to task-irrelevant thoughts (see Smallwood & Schooler, 2015 for review). Mind wandering is associated with reduced cortical processing of external stimuli (Baird, Smallwood, Lutz, & Schooler, 2014; Kam et al., 2011), which suggests that mind wandering could reduce the likelihood that a prospective memory cue will be detected. This reasoning is further supported by the ‘gateway hypothesis’ of attention that posits attention is directed to either external stimuli or self-generated, internal representations (Burgess, Dumontheil, & Gilbert, 2007). Therefore, prospective memory cues could remain undetected during mind wandering, especially if mind wandering thoughts are unrelated to the prospective task. Conversely, according to the ‘autobiographical planning’ hypothesis, mind wandering thoughts are frequently future oriented, suggesting that mind wandering enables prospective cognitive operations (Baird, Smallwood, & Schooler, 2011). For instance, both spontaneous mind wandering and intentional future-oriented thoughts are associated with activation of the default-mode network—the network of brain regions within the medial surface of the cortex that is active during stimulus-independent, internal thought (Buckner, Andrews Hanna, & Schacter, 2008; Christoff et al., 2009; Preminger, Harmelech, and Malach, 2011; Spreng and Grady 2010)—suggesting convergent neural operations between mind wandering and prospective thinking (Stawarczyk & D’Argembeau, 2015). More generally, evidence suggests that people are more likely to enact plans that they imagine enacting; hence imagery has been used to increase the probability of people voting in elections (Libby, Shaeffer, Eibach, & Slemmer, 2007) and of people successfully acquiring skills (Baumeister & Masicampo, 2011).

Considered in concert, mind wandering might actually facilitate prospective memory cue detection, especially if mind wandering thoughts are related to the prospective task. Lastly, it is possible that the specific prospective memory task and associated cues could modulate the relationship between mind wandering and prospective memory. For instance, according to accounts in visual attention, items associated with subjective assessments of high-value are more likely to capture attention than items associated with low value (e.g., Hickey, Chelazzi, & Theeuwes, 2010). Therefore, mind wandering could impair the detection of prospective memory cues associated with low value prospective memory tasks but not high-value prospective memory tasks. The proposed project will determine the extent to which mind wandering affects prospective memory cue detection by testing these competing hypotheses.

Establishing the relationship between mind wandering and prospective memory is Aim 1 of the current project, and concerns the circumstances under which prospective memory errors occur during periods of mind wandering. Aims 2 and 3 evaluate perceived responsibility for prospective memory performance given mind wandering. Aim 2 of this project will probe the extent to which people hold themselves responsible for their mind wandering and subsequent prospective memory performance after receiving mechanistic and/or intentionalist feedback regarding their mind wandering and the impact of that mind wandering on task performance. We will also measure objective markers of prospective memory and subsequent prospective memory performance in order to test the extent to which feedback affects subsequent performance and self-assessments of responsibility. Aim 3 will then probe how much people hold other actors responsible for 1) the onset and maintenance of mind wandering (Experiment 3a) and 2) the potentially immoral content of mind wandering (Experiment 3b). 

Team members:

 Kristina Krasich, PhD student, Department of Psychology, University of Notre Dame

Kristina Krasich, PhD student, Department of Psychology, University of Notre Dame

 Samuel Murray, PhD student, Department of Philosophy, Universidad de los Andes (Bogotá)

Samuel Murray, PhD student, Department of Philosophy, Universidad de los Andes (Bogotá)

 Robert Blakey, PhD student, Departments of Psychology and Criminology, University of Oxford, UK

Robert Blakey, PhD student, Departments of Psychology and Criminology, University of Oxford, UK